on September 24, 2000
This novel is, like most of Kerouac's writings, autobiographical. It is based on the adventures he had continually roaming about the United States in the late 1940's, when he was in his late 20's, by himself and with his friends, especially one Neal Cassady, who grew up in the midwest and southwest with a violently alcoholic hobo father, spending his time in skid row hotels, jails, reform school, riding trains, stealing cars and shoplifting and panhandling and hustling and boozing and screwing females left and right, and generally just having a grand old time. Cassady somehow developed a correspondence while in reform school in New Mexico with one of Kerouac's friends in his intellectual hipster clique at Colombia University in New York and through that friend Kerouac eventually met Cassady.
Anyway, part one of the novel, which is roughly 110 pages, contains some of the best writing anyone has done anywhere at anytime. Kerouac is the narrator in the novel and gives himself the fantastic name of Sal Paradise. The charaters he encounters, the situations in which he is involved, the scenery he passes are all described with extraordinary simplicity, vividness and plausibility. Riding with farmhands, hitchiking with "Eddie", partying in Cheyenne, Wyoming are some of the highlights that lead to Sal catching up in Denver and staying with his friends for a time. And what a wierd group of friends they are! Some are intellectuals, some are not, all enjoy partying, boozing, making love (a euphemism) and so on. Here we first get a full picture of Neal Cassidy, or as he is called in the book, Dean Moriarty. He spends alot of time engaged in conversations about spiritualism with Sal's friend Carlo Marx (in real life Allan Ginsberg)and rushing back and forth between the homes of his two girlfriends, Marylou, a slut, and Camille, decent and respectable, for bouts of fornication. After leaving Denver, he goes to live with his friend Remi and his unpleasant, sexy girlfriend in a shantytown just outside San Francisco and works with Remi as a policeman watching over a barracks full of drunken naval shipyard workers and has a great many adventures. It keeps getting better and better. After his relationship becomes too strained with Remi, he leaves and eventually ends up meeting on a bus in Bakersfield (or was it in Hollywood) a beautiful four foot ten Mexican woman named Terry and they end up having an affair and Kerouac's (Sal's) description of their cotton picking and encounters with Terry's family and other adventures in rural California are extraordinarily plausible and vivid. This is brilliant stuff, baby.
But, of course, he is forced to move on and leave Terry and her seven year old son, Johnny and head back to New York, and the novel moves into part two. After this, until the journey into Mexico at the end of the book, the novel is something of a mixed bag. Sal (Kerouac) eventually hooks up with Dean (Neal Cassady)and Marylou and they begin another journey. Kerouac laboriously describes the scenery in the various states they pass through in Dean's automobile. He often does a beautiful job of it. He describes the places where they stopped to eat and get gas and a few incidents with the police and getting stuck in the mud, and so on. He describes the hitchikers they pick and they all seem quite plausible. But there is a very noticeable lack of action and it is quite a letdown from the great energy of part one. They end up in just outside of New Orleans. They visit Old Bull Lee (in real life William Burroughs) in his shack with his wife, Jane, and their two kids. Old Bull is described, among other things, as being formerly part of a drug smuggling ring in North Africa, a waiter (and bartender too)in Paris, Chicago and New York, a former student of medicine in Vienna, and now is living in this shack as described above, studying Shakespeare among many other subjects, gaining a small income from growing black peas in Texas, and receiving some allowance money from his family which he completely wastes on a violent drug habit. Kerouac handicaps himself, I think, by trying to deal with this figure who is just too bizarre to be real, even if it is a completely accurate portrayal of Burroughs, though he does manage to make Old Bull's implusiveness and drug-induced haze seem very real.
From then on, the story becomes too complicated to describe. The main characters of the story keep rushing back and forth between San Francisco, Denver, New York and then back again, among other places along the way. There is some very decent writing in these parts as during Sal's solitary walk in the black section of Denver and view of the softball game or the poignancy of Dean after getting kicked out by Camille in San Francisco. But there are many times when Kerouac, instead of giving plausible, vivid portrayals, seem to be rushing through the scenes, as during the partying in Denver where Babe Rawlins's aunt is described, or the section where Dean and Sal stay with the coal truck driver woman Frankie, and her poet thirteen year old daughter. There are other times, such as in San Francisco and Chicago where Dean and Sal spend alot of time in bob jazz clubs but instead of describing vividly the estacy of his and Dean's(Neal's) love for jazz, Kerouac becomes rambling and maudlin. There are other times, when Kerouac indulges in spiritualist mumbo jumbo as when he is attempting to describe an out of body experience or some such thing that he had while going mad with hunder on the streets of San Francisco or during the conversation between Dean and Sal in the travel bureau car as it rode from San Francisco to Sacremento. At times Dean becomes a very plausible and sympathetic figure, as when he is telling stories about his boyhood, other times he is a very brutal version of the "Fonz" from "Happy Days," other times he is so violently hyperactive and speaks so strangely that it is very difficult to comprehend him.
But as we come to the last fourty or so pages of the book, Kerouac recovers the solid brilliance of part one. Dean, Sal and their friend Stan make a journey into Mexico, party and smoke marajuana and get drunk and dance with the ladies of a rural brothel, spend the night in a bug-infested jungle, end up in Mexico city where Sal contacts dysentery.
As the book concludes, Dean suddenly becomes a completely vivid figure. I saw all the demons that drove him to such incredible impulsiveness, his incredible womanizing, his decent impulses. I felt like I had very much seen him before.